Those promoting sustainability have to get better at putting the case that investing in green construction can boost growth

Joey Gardiner

Green party leader Natalie Bennett became an unlooked for Twitter sensation this week following her car crash interview with LBC Radio’s Nick Ferrari over her party’s housing policy. There’s no doubt that, on the eve of the Ecobuild conference, and two months before the general election, both sustainability and the built environment are very much in the news.

Next week’s conference will provide perhaps the last detailed forum in which to debate the sustainability of the UK’s construction and built environment sector before this year’s poll. It also provides a viewpoint from which to review where we’ve come in the last five austerity-bedevilled years.

It has become a commonplace to rate Cameron’s pledge of making his government the “greenest ever” next to the coalition’s actual track record on sustainability - a track record that’s patchy at best. While it is hard to find anyone who believes the coalition has been the greenest ever, the last five years have seen genuine achievements on sustainability, such as the proposed introduction of minimum energy performance standards in the commercial and residential sector. But - as Building has documented tirelessly - there has been more than a healthy dollop of U-turns (FITs), policy failures (Green Deal) and unhelpful rhetoric about “green crap”.

The continuing uncertainties and concerns over the standard to which we build new homes, and the government’s about-turn on the widely supported policy of Display Energy Certificates, both detailed in this week’s magazine, are further examples of the faltering delivery of sustainability policy.

Many in the UK distrust what they see as knee-jerk environmentalism as a kind of woolly-minded and unhelpful idealism, and certainly not a rational plan on which to build a sound economic future for the UK

For many, the most unhelpful theme of this period has been the way the politics of austerity - as espoused by the Treasury particularly - have been placed in opposition to the need for greater sensitivity to mankind’s impact upon the environment. Green policies, the rhetoric has gone, are a luxury we can no longer afford given the UK’s ballooning public sector debt.

In many ways, Natalie Bennett’s “mind blank” interview on LBC exemplifies this image problem. Despite the overwhelming evidence in favour of climate change, many in the UK distrust what they see as knee-jerk environmentalism as a kind of woolly-minded and unhelpful idealism, and certainly not a rational plan on which to build a sound economic future for the UK.

In order to convince the electorate, and all of the construction industry, those promoting sustainability have to get better at making their case in the language that economists and industry understand. This means spelling out how investment in sustainable technologies and construction methods can boost growth, and give the UK a competitive advantage over less forward-thinking nations.

For a vision of this new breed of committed but pragmatic environmentalism, you need look no further than the 50 rising young stars of sustainability that we identify on page 28. Nominated by their peers in the industry, these are the people who will help shape the next generation of the construction industry - and the future looks bright.

While they are not enamoured with the coalition’s track record - giving it a meagre four out of 10 for progress on sustainability - they are nonetheless optimistic about the future, and full of ideas of how to improve the construction industry we all work in. Because while the election may be at the forefront of many of our minds - and no doubt Natalie Bennett’s - ultimately it is the industry itself that is best placed to drive change.

As one of our young talents, Bam’s Anthony Heaton, says, the industry has perhaps let itself down in recent years with the slow speed of modernisation. “It needs training and a little persuasion,” he says. If it is going to make that change, and if sustainability is really going to become the bedrock of the sector, then these are the people that can make it happen.

Joey Gardiner, deputy editor